by Braz Menezes
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[Review] Rising to the top, no matter the matata, no matter the heartache, or heartbreak!

Gerhard A. Fuerst — Michigan, U.S.

Gerhard A. Fuerst is retired adjunct professor of social science at Western Michigan University.)

What in my estimation makes the historical novels of author Braz Menezes so fascinating is his lively and exciting narrative style, which entices the reader to follow him wherever he guides, lures, and leads you, often with a very delightful sense of self-deprecating humor. Books one and two, published to date, of his Matata Trilogy, with number three being a work in progress, are essentially biographical in nature. It is history lived and experienced in actuality!

Both in content and context, the unfolding historical scenarios are most convincingly and reliably related by the characters in his novels, with whom Lando, central to all aspects of personal and public events, both in a routine, extraordinary or exceptional sense, shared his many adventures and exploits. He got into all sorts of matata at times, which again mandated clever attempts or tricks of extrications. Youth after all is the time of stretching and testing given parental and social norms, learning both by one’s wit and by one’s mistakes.

It is also the story of his scores of school mates and his very persuasive and influential teachers, his neighbors and family friends, and all others he and his family encountered and interacted with on a daily basis or in their narrowly defined and designated social settings, shaped first and foremost by family, school, church, and the community’s social club.

In a very skillfully and lovingly crafted literary style, Menezes makes the reader fully aware what it was like to grow up in the British Colony of Kenya. He clearly delineates what challenges and risks people were confronted by, what limitations or restrictions in personal mobility, educational and occupational opportunities, and racial residential compartmentalization. It was both external and internal colonialism, perhaps even a form of imposed ghettoization. People faced innumerable dilemmas as they tried to wind their ways through the meandering and often conflicting trials and tribulations of a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious social construct.

The many Goans migrating from Portuguese India to East Africa, coming with skills and a willingness to work with distinction and dedication, were able to fit in and make do entirely without, or with whatever was permissible or available. You had to find your niche where you could exist with a sense of normalcy, both in private and in public. You had to learn to survive. You had to bear the economic burdens, and to make the best out of very limited social opportunities, in order to rise to the top at a level allocated to you and your kind. You learned to be the best you could be in this social conglomeration, a multi-layered cultural complex with many communities being compelled to coexist under strictly enforced segregated conditions, with very significant differences and inevitabe tensions, not only between but also within. You were manipulated at will by the colonial power and you had to prove yourself to be a genius at survival. Goans managed to do that, and in doing so, helped in building the administrative capacity, infrastructure and the economy of the colony, as was demanded of them at the time, and later of the independent country.

Lando resumed his education in Nairobi, adjusting to what had transpired in his absence. Changes of schooling had become necessary, as new opportunities presented themselves. This involved switching from a Goan Catholic setting to a non-Catholic public school with a new focus on imparting technical skills for work opportunities to be created or demanded by the thoroughly class- and race-conscious British colonial government.

As mentioned before, the narrative is so compelling, you cannot help but identify with Lando and his varied matata plight, both real or imagined. In fact, the reader is virtually transformed in becoming Lando, and living his life with him and for him. He needs both reassurance and understanding, as he faces teenage temptations, and as he overcomes difficulties in a post-World War II society. These have both direct and indirect domestic consequences, affecting social relationships and old friendships as one erstwhile colony after another sought to extricate itself from under the externally imposed colonial yoke.

These struggles were incredibly violent, brutal and bloody, and it left an internally divisive colonial legacy, which lingers and languishes to this day. Kenya experienced the pro-nationalist Mau Mau Emergency and gained its Independence from British rule in 1963. This necessitated also a very painful reshuffling of the social settings, forcing Goans and other immigrant races to either remain by trying to stake a claim in the possibilities and the process of independent nation building, or to leave. Returning to their ancestral homeland of Goa was for many still an option, however in 1961, this former Portuguese colonial enclave had been seized by India in a very move of swift imperialistic military might, which the victors later on in somewhat over-bearing and arrogant ways referred to as their “war before breakfast!”

Lando and his family made the most of what had been given to them, and what they had created for themselves based on their own tireless, dedicated, frugal efforts and hard labors. He also rediscovered a love he had long nurtured for Saboti. Friendship in due time becomes romance and real love. For that reason alone, Lando was intent to reach across very complex racial barriers, and socially imposed taboos, dictated by notions of caste and class.

Alas, Saboti, moved to London to seek other employment opportunities, in part also to escape a dangerously deteriorating situation in Kenya, with the Mau Mau insurrection causing chaos. Lando’s dreams of personal happiness were dashed. He ultimately found fulfillment in architecture and urban planning. He and Saboti encountered each other again later on in life, by sheer chance, after many decades had passed. Their friendship was renewed. She and Lando were again reaching out to each other, both at the beginning of book two and at its end….it is like a very loving and kind-hearted literary embrace by long lost friends in need of personal comfort and mutual reassurance.